Canaletto’s picture perfect painting for postcard tourist reproduction was just a bit too idyllic and ideal. He painted a View From the Thames from Lambeth Palace on a sparkling summer day in the middle of the eighteenth century. But what was really happening behind those walls and in those narrow streets on that sunny afternoon…
The neighborhood Westminster, was a conservative neighborhood, and in parliamentary contests, it usually voted against the least whiff of reform. The Houses of Parliament, which in their nineteenth century form so completely dominate this particular section of London today, are difficult to find in Canaletto’s picture, nestled as they are between Westminster Abbey and the Thames. It is as though the voice of the people was required to augment the structure to its present magnificent proportions. For during the eighteenth century Parliament was firmly controlled by an elite of “gentle families.”
Historians do not consider eighteenth-century English politics in the narrow sense of democratic elections; politics existed outside Parliament in such forums as newspapers, coffehouse arguments, workers’ strikes and riots. Yet, when all is said and done, the lower classes participated in politics only as truck drivers can be said to engage in commerce and trade. Class structure, the law, and corruption kept all but the privileged few out of politics and forced the property-less and the poor to seek their rights and freedoms outside the law. Having created an outlaw class, the rich were left with nothing much to do but punish it. The most severe punishments of the eighteenth century were reserved for crimes against property. Somewhere between 150 and 250,categories of crime became subject to capital punishment, including assaults on gamekeepers and poaching on aristocratic hunting preserves. And so we should not be surprised that so many of the victims were lustily applauded on their way to the scaffold. Some years after Canaletto left London, when the Prince of Wales was robbed in Berkely Square in broad daylight, there were those of the Scum who thought it was the eighteenth-century’s finest hour.
Parliament divided rich from poor, as it divides Canaletto’s picture. Just above the Houses of Parliament in the new Westminster Bridge, begun in 1739. By this time, the timber supports on the bridge had become a town joke. It seemed the structure would never be finished, but it finally was, in 1750, helping enormously to hasten the redistribution of London’s population. By the end of the eighteenth century, the poor had settled in East London, where they have, for the most part, remained ever since, commuting into the west to drive their carriages, deliver the milk, and sweep the streets. In 1748 an item appeared in a London paper: “If we look into the Streets, what a Medley of Neighborhood do we see! Here lives a Personage of high Distinction; next Door a Butcher with his stinking Shambles! A Tallow-chandler shall front my Lady’s nice Venetian window; and two or three brawny naked curriers in their Pits shall face a fine Lady in her back Closet, and disturb her spiritual Thoughts.” In some sense, Canaletto can be said to have documented the moment at which the medley of neighborhoods began to disappear and the modern city to take form: rich in the West, poor in the East.